The Words We Use: How to Be an Anti-Racist Writer
By Katia Senff
In our December Editorial Meeting, our team discussed the capitalization of ethnic groups. We found inconsistent use of capitalization in our work when referencing Black and White identity. Should we not capitalize "White"? Should we use lowercase for both? Why isn't "Black" standardized? We quickly realized we needed to specify a guideline.
Through research, we discovered that many style manuals have side-stepped the issue by leaving the decision up to the Editor and writers. This solution is simply not good enough. Like other ethnic groups, Asian, Latinx, Indigenous, which are all routinely capitalized, Black capitalization needs to be standardized.
Historically, language and grammar have been weaponized to demean, degrade, and erase the identity of a people. Grammatical rules have traditionally been determined by predominantly White institutions. This issue has been recognized by thought leaders throughout history, including W. E. B. Du Bois, who in 1885, Du Bois advocated for writing “Negro” with a capital “N” stating that “eight million Americans deserve a capital letter”. With more than 42 million Black Americans in the United States today, this is all the more true.1
We have chosen to follow the example set by Black institutions, which routinely capitalize “Black.” Black Lives Matter (BLM), Showing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ), and Center for the Study of Social Policy (CSSP) are just a few examples. Capitalizing “Black” reclaims Black identity, humanity, and history.
Conversations like this speak to the importance of recognizing racism in writing. Choosing to not capitalize the "B" in Black diminishes the history and identity of Black people and perpetuates racist standards in language. So, fellow writers and Editors, the next time you see "black" when referring to a people's identity, please correct the typo.
1. United States Census Bureau https://www.census.gov/quickfacts/fact/table/US/PST045219